Hyde Park Co-op celebrates 70th anniversary

By Isaac Wolf

Convening Sunday to celebrate the Hyde Park Co-op’s 70th anniversary, about 200 shareholders discussed the state of the supermarket and accepted a city council resolution honoring it.

Though the chain’s birthday cake was iced by the news that for the first time in two years it would turn a monthly profit, the meeting was dominated by discussion of the four million dollars of debt remaining from the creation of the 47th Street branch three years ago.

“We have had a difficult period,” said Co-op president Winston Kennedy, noting that $1.3 million had been paid back this year. “We are now turning the corner.”

In the volatile industry of retail supermarkets–accentuated by Safeway’s recent move to sell the Dominick’s chain–the Co-op has not only weathered the grocery industry and maintained a sustainable market share, but it has blossomed into a community-wide institution.

And while most other Chicago-area cooperatives have dissolved over the years as specific communities blended into the mainstream market, the Co-op has thrived, with sales this year reaching over $44 million.

Hit hard by the Depression, Hyde Park community members began in December 1932 to buy groceries together in bulk to save money. Situated in an upper level apartment near the University, members met on Saturdays to pick up groceries and place orders for the next week.

“It started out very simply–it was nothing more than a buying club,” said Leon Despres, who was 24 when the Co-op began and was instrumental in its growth over the years.

After eight months of buying in bulk, though, the group was losing money and had to find a way to become more profitable in order to continue. The members turned to University economics professor Paul Douglas for advice.

“Either open a store at once, or liquidate before you lose the money,” he is reported to have said. With these words of advice, the Co-op opened its first public store in October 1933.

Bouncing around Hyde Park through the 1930s and 1940s as it expanded, yearly Co-op sales figures began to grow into the millions as it became Hyde Park’s supermarket.

The Co-op gained popularity by serving customers honestly, introducing the system of selling meat by grade. “Unlike other places, we didn’t cheat at the checkout counters,” Despres said. “We also gave customers accurate weight.”

By 1959, the Co-op had amassed such a volume of business that it moved into its present 45,000 square foot location–at that time the largest supermarket in Chicago.

Another factor that sets the Co-op apart from chain supermarkets is its long history of social involvement in the community. Since its inception, the Co-op has had a much larger role than simply selling groceries, serving as community center, school, and platform for social change.

“We began hiring nonwhites as employees,” Despres said. “We boasted that the staff was the League of Nations, comprising Asian Americans, African-Americans and Hispanic Americans.”

The Co-op was also a crucial instrument in the Urban Renewal campaign through the 1960s, resuscitating poor neighborhoods and anchoring successful shopping centers. By coordinating classes and contributing to over 50 organizations and several community service projects–including the Thanksgiving dinner preparation on Monday–the Co-op has become an institution somewhat like a community center.

“This is a social investment in the community which brings us together,” said Reverend Richard Mosley, an alternate member of the Co-op executive board. “In spite of what happens in the market, we have a commitment to each other to help build a stronger community.”

Mosley attributes the success of the Co-op, at least in part, to the community’s level of intelligence. “When you have a high level of education, community co-ops will flourish,” Mosley said.

Though the Co-op has had a long and storied past, some community members are not satisfied with the selection and prices at the supermarket chain.

Arlise Andress, a third-year in the College who cooks Filipino and Mexican food, says she often has to go across town to find ingredients for her recipes.

“Jewel seems a lot cleaner,” she said. “It’s a lot bigger than the Co-op, and the prices are cheaper too.”

Co-op officials are not concerned with a chain supermarket opening in Hyde Park or Kenwood–there is simply no vacancy, they maintain–but they worry about keeping prices competitive, while paying top dollar to employ union workers and continue community functions.

Other supermarkets have had the opportunity to enter the market though; before the Co-op built the 47th Street branch in 1999, chain supermarkets were solicited to develop the property, according to Fourth Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle. They declined, however, saying the area would not be profitable, Preckwinkle said.

The Co-op currently has 31,000 shareholders from Hyde Park and the surrounding communities. It is believed to be the largest community-owned retail co-op in America.